Sometimes I’d try to calculate how long it was since I had last been touched: days, weeks. I’d catch myself holding hugs with friends longer than was socially acceptable in order to squeeze, quite literally, as much contact as I could from the interaction. Sometimes, on seeing a couple walking ahead of me on the street, arms entwined, bodies moving together casually, deliberately, I’d feel a pang — real, physical pain — in my chest.
There were days when I’d try to figure out how long it would take for someone to notice if I was murdered. Would my spin instructor miss me if I didn’t show up to my regular class? How many unanswered texts would convince my friends that I wasn’t just busy, but dead in a ditch? It was a joke, but only kind of.
I read ludicrous articles claiming that after a year of celibacy, the body underwent a process called “revirginization.” Twelve sex-free months would make me a born-again virgin, and the clock was counting down.
The rest of the time, though, I was planning a wedding. I pondered bridesmaids’ dresses. I considered color schemes on Pinterest. I had conversations with friends about the pros and cons of buffets versus sit-down meals, of holding the ceremony and reception in the same place or organizing transport between two different venues. I researched what legal steps were necessary for a couple, one Brit and one American, to live in the same country after their marriage.
I was alone and in a committed relationship. Somehow, those things were not mutually exclusive. I was in love with somebody who was not there, who for the most part existed only as a talking head in a box on the screen of my computer. I lived in London, he lived in Boston, and sometimes I felt so lonely it was hard to breathe.
We met in graduate school in the United States. I had lusted after him silently from across the classroom. I read the short stories he presented to our fiction workshop with quiet fervor, finding each sentence a work of subtle brilliance, each of his protagonists a beloved cipher for his author. While we were students, our relationship never progressed beyond critiques of each other’s work and superficial discussions in the pub after class about movies and music we liked. I fell in love regardless, using details from his fiction to fill the gaps in my knowledge about who he was.
Falling in love with someone who isn’t there takes dedication and imagination.
It wasn’t until we’d graduated that we got together: He was living in Paris, and I had moved home to London. We spent a few months as regulars on the Eurostar, taking turns to visit each other. Then he had to go back to Boston, and I stayed put in the UK. He was working; I was getting my PhD. From the beginning, our relationship was conducted at long range. Heady days of togetherness punctuated stretches of solitude. I was in a relationship with a man. I was in a relationship with a patchwork of memories of, aspirations for, and fantasies about a man. I was in a relationship with Skype.